Photography at the Bauhaus

Masters on the roof of the Bauhaus building, c.1926, From left to right: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl and Oskar Schlemmer. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin/Centre Pompidou, Paris

Bauhaus: Art as Life, currently on display at the Barbican Centre, explores the legendary modern art and design school from its inception in Weimar in 1919 until its eventual demise in Berlin in 1933. The exhibition is split into two parts: works on display on the upper level of the gallery represent the early stages of the school, while the lower level covers works produced by Bauhaus staff and students after the school moved to Dessau in 1925. In order to appreciate the physical and psychological transformation of the school, the gallery exhibited works in a rough chronological order, displaying the earliest works first and ending with the latest works last.

Erich Consemüller, Marcel Breuer and his Harem (Martha Erps, Katt Both and Ruth Hellos), 1927, Gelatin silver print, Herzogenrath, Berlin, On long-term loan to Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Bestand Museen, © Estate Erich Consemüller

In addition to the chronological display of the vast amount of material in the exhibition, the gallery presented works in clusters in relation to a diverse range of mediums such as crafts, graphic arts, performance, textiles, design and so forth. Photography, as several rooms in the gallery appear to indicate, played a major role at the Bauhaus. The preliminary course on ‘balance studies’ for instance, taught by the Jewish-Hungarian photographer László Moholy-Nagy, encouraged students to explore aesthetics and the propensities of industrial materials. Here however, as many other photographs by Moholy-Nagy’s wife Lucia Moholy show, photography was used to ‘document’ artworks produced at the Bauhaus. Similarly, in a section of the Barbican called ‘our play, our party, our work’, photography is presented as a method to capture ‘fleeting moments of intimacy between staff and students’. In other words, the emphasis in the exhibition is placed on photography’s ability to document, capture and record social relationships as well as artworks produced perhaps as a result of these relationships.

T. Lux Feininger, Sport at the Bauhaus / Jump over the Bauhaus, c. 1927 Gelatin silver print Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © Estate T. Lux Feininger

Beyond photography as ‘document’, the exhibition paid comparatively little attention to the fact that photography was self-consciously used and experimented with throughout the Bauhaus years, that it perfectly suited the modernist agenda of the school, that it was an intrinsically new medium much like internet art today, that it was, to borrow from Walter Benjamin’s famous 1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Even though this is not properly explained in the exhibition, photography evidently represented far more than a useful tool to document art and life at the Bauhaus, but rather, it allowed artists to create a totally new vision and understanding of modernity. Many photographs on display thus incorporate reflections, mirrors, distortions, photographed from unusual perspectives and vantage points, printed as negative or displayed as montage. In spite of little guidance on the subject, the aesthetic simplicity of photograms – a negative shadow image of objects placed on a light sensitive paper – directly relates to the formal beauty of a whole range of iconic designs produced at the Bauhaus.

László Moholy-Nagy, Photogram, ca. 1924, Gelatin silver print

The German propensity to create long and philosophically dense compound nouns best describes the pedagogic intentions of the Bauhaus: students were encouraged to produce a Gesamtkunstwerk, a ‘total work of art’, that would include architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance, theatre, and, of course, photography. As these artistic mediums are displayed in chronological order and in different clusters, their relationship to each other rarely become evident in the exhibition. Here, the decontextualized presentation of the work roughly according to medium actually stands in direct contrast to one of the most important theoretical paradigms of the Bauhaus. A room, if not the whole exhibition itself, could have illustrated the notion of ‘total work of art’ by displaying artworks not in relation to their medium, but in relation to their thematic concern.

Iwao Yamawaki Bauhaus building, 1930–32 Vintage print, Galerie Berinson, Berlin, © Makoto Yamawaki

Considering the huge scale of this exhibition, another aspect that received little attention in the display of the material is the international background of many staff and students at the Bauhaus. Moholy-Nagy was Hungarian, his wife was born in Prague, the first faculty appointment of Walter Gropius (the founder of the Bauhaus) was Lyonel Feininger, a German-American who was born and grew up in New York. Bauhaus students, including Iwao Yamawaki from Japan, travelled from all over the world to study at the school. This is an important aspect to consider because the international legacy of former staff and students allows us to appreciate how the Bauhaus continued to live on. The viewer will quickly realize that the art and design principles taught at the Bauhaus can be seen everywhere today: from the interior design of Wagamama restaurants, to the mass-produced lamps sold at Ikea, from the iconic iPod design to no other architectural icon than the Barbican itself. How the Bauhaus relates to the world today, and how it helped to shape intrinsically global perceptions on art and design are questions left unanswered in the decontextualized and intellectually unchallenging presentation of the material. As the viewer is reminded, Bauhaus was established in 1919 and it closed in 1933.

Iwao Yamawaki, collage, 1932

The historical and geographic proximity of the Bauhaus to the turbulent political processes unfolding in Germany at the time is another aspect of the exhibition that deserved far more attention. Not only do the Bauhaus years exactly correspond with the establishment and catastrophic end of the German federal republic before Hitler came to power, but also, amazingly, the Bauhaus was founded in Weimar, where the new republic was founded, and closed in Berlin, the eventual capital of the Third Reich. The provocative and enlightened vision of the Bauhaus thus stands in direct contrast to the utter tragedy of a failing democracy. In light of the intense political shifts before and during the Weimar Republic, it is difficult to ignore the Bauhaus in relation to both, the overcoming of an outdated form of Imperialism after World War I, and the rise of National Socialism. With very few direct connections between artworks and the political conditions of the time highlighted or interpreted for the viewer, the exhibition appears not only detached from the past but also from the present.

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2 thoughts on “Photography at the Bauhaus

  1. Marco- excellent review and I couldn’t agree more about the ‘separation’ aspect about display/exhibiting. But this has forever been an issue with documenting the Bauhaus or perhaps any ‘school’ of aesthetics and design with a philosophy of unity in the arts. I feel the best presentation of the Bauhaus is when one visits a work of architecture from the period, where the sense of the total is evident with the furnishings, lighting, artwork and accessories in context with the spaces they were designed for. As for the political context-I’m surprised this wasn’t addressed, considering almost all if the best practitioners of the school ended up fleeing Naziism to sow the seed of modernism in new soil around the world. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to see it and make my own judgements..

  2. I found your blog so interesting, you go deep to the point and develops ideas around it. I loved the article about the banned adv of American Apparel.

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